SOCIAL MEDIA

15 December 2015

The War of Misery

It seems to be a natural human reaction--responding to another person's complaint with a (far more dramatic) tale of your own woe. It's the proverbial "walked 10 miles to school barefoot, and in the snow" brought to life.

It's easy for any of us to get dragged into it. Say I hear someone talking about how they're finding their first year of college to be really rough.

I can jump in with my own tragic tale and say, "Rough? I know all about that. Try starting college at barely 17, all alone in a country which seems foreign, not having a driver's license, and freezing to death on top of it all because your tropical blood was not prepared for one of the snowiest Michigan winters they've had in years!"

Say a fellow ESL teacher says, "Sometimes, this job is hard."

Someone with the work history of, say, Angel, could easily the twist the topic to his own advantage, "You think teaching ESL is hard? No one's life depends on this job. At my old job, a normal day included providing medical care for patients with burns covering more than half their bodies. Try doing that for twelve-hour shifts."

And then the firemen....and the soldiers...and the policemen....and the EMTs (and all their spouses!) would all start chiming in about how tough their jobs are and everything would just turn into a mess.

A photo posted by Rachel G (@randomlyrachels) on
You think your bed is uncomfortable? Some people nap on the floor, okay? Try that!

I call it the War of Misery. Somehow, for all too many of us, our instinctive reaction to hearing about someone else's hardship is to change the topic by adding our own story of how we've overcome significantly harder times than those that they are facing. I'm not really sure what the motivation behind such talk is. Maybe, deep, deep down, we're hoping to inspire others to greatness by encouraging them with our own personal story of struggles triumphed over. Occasionally, we might even be able to tell our stories in a season in which they really are inspiring.

But too often, when we one-up another's tale of woe with a story of our own, it's just our inherent selfish streak wanting to change the topic to be about us and our own experiences. Because we care more about our stories than we care about someone else's.

Also, a touch of bitterness and lack of compassion for others can easily sneak in in these situations. What right has the other person to complain about such a small trial when I've survived such big ones? I'll give them some realistic perspective because they're living in a bubble world if they think what they're experiencing is a problem. I see this happening a lot with mothers. You have problems with one kid? I have four. Your baby weighed 7 lbs? Mine weighed 10.

And then, there's the good old competitive instinct. I've seen some misery one-uppers who are clearly in it only to win the medal for "most miserable." Why said medal is so desirable, I have no idea, but it's obvious that some are out to get it and won't give up short of reaching their goal.

The truth is, that sometimes people do complain about silly stuff. Often, we humans aren't fully capable of having a wider perspective on the suffering that the whole world has experienced when they are experiencing suffering themselves.

But I do not believe that topping one person's story of tough times with your own story is the way to give them a proper perspective. Have you ever tried to tell someone who just seriously stubbed their toe and is limping in pain about the statistics on how many people undergo medically necessary amputations each and every day so they should just appreciate having a toe? I haven't, but I have to imagine that it's not the best timing you could choose. It is not our universal responsibility to 'pop' all bubble worlds that we come across in our daily lives.

Next time you hear a complaint you could easily top (i.e. "I wish we had a bigger yard for the kids to play in!"...."Oh yeah? My family lives in a tiny apartment and THERE IS NO YARD.") ....don't top it. Instead, try listening, and when appropriate, showing compassion to someone who's hurting.

The fact that we've experienced pain does not mitigate the pain that others experience. Responding to, "I'm bummed out because I got in a big fight with my dad." with "Well, I wish my dad was still alive for me to get into a fight with!" isn't particularly helpful. Let's put up our white flags and resign ourselves to the truth that this is one war nobody will win, so we might as well stop digging around in our past for tragedies to top other people's tragedies with. I'd rather win at the competition for most joyful, anyways. Doesn't that sound like it's at least a little more fun?

"I'll see you your deceased goldfish and raise you my kitten who got run over."

NO MORE.

28 comments :

  1. I absolutely love this post, Rachel. This is so true. I have seen this played in my life for sure. During undergrad, I was a biochemistry major, one of the most difficult (if not THE most difficult major) on campus. During the capstone courses senior year, I would hear my peers in other majors like communications complain about their work load that I could only dream of. I didn't want to come off like an insensitive person and I am very keen on being empathetic. But I would be lying if I said that I wasn't thinking, "You think that is hard? You have NO idea what I have to deal with." So while I did not respond with my woes, I was most certainly thinking it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes. I totally agree, and this is actually something I've been thinking about a lot and working on in my own life. Sometimes I have to check myself with this, because I like to share my experience to let the other person know I understand, no really, I GET IT, I DO. When it's something I relate to, I want my friends to know they aren't alone. But it can absolutely come off as one-upping. I see this SO MUCH in motherhood, and it drives me crazy even though I've definitely been guilty too. The morning sickness complaints are what have gotten me thinking about this. When someone complains about a little first trimester nausea when I was hospitalized for throwing up nonstop, I roll my eyes and get huffy, but I'm working on that. Because at the end of the day, any amount of nausea completely sucks.

    ReplyDelete
  3. So great. Love this: " It is not our universal responsibility to 'pop' all bubble worlds that we come across in our daily lives." I think for myself a lot of it is pride because I somehow want to prove something. But you're right, it's really lame and I feel duly convicted. Thank you. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  4. I completely agree with this! I hate when people do this to me so I am going to try to be extra away of doing it myself!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ah. I can so definitely relate to this. :[ I try my best to focus on the good, but I definitely have moments where I hear someone complaining about something that seems really trivial and want to tell em' it really isn't that bad...but I generally curb it and just listen. Everyone has a different threshold for what they can and can't take, and there's always the possibility that they're complaining about that because they don't want to think about something else that's really worrying them.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I fell you, Rachel! Complaining isn't a competition! I always try to be positive and supportive when someone tells me their sorrows.. just listen rather than try to win some sort of non-existent woe competition. Everyone's better off that way. :) Great post. :3

    Christie's Take on Life. x

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ahem.. That would be feel* not fell. Gosh, Christie. -_-

      Delete
  7. Great post. The things people tend to complain about are relative anyway, so the competition part of these types of conversation is meaningless. For example a person might moan about having to walk a mile to work, which is difficult for them due to health issues. Whereas a fit and healthy person may jog for 5 miles before they go to work, but it isn't really an issue for them because they enjoy jogging. So the fact that they travel further doesn't really mean anything - especially to the person who made the original complaint!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Perfectly put! I've often thought of this as well, just haven't had a chance to share it with someone who wouldn't be upset about it! You make so many great points throughout I had to share it in hopes some people on my friends list will read it. Lol!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I spent 12 years working as a grief counselor and there were times during support groups when I had clients who wanted to compare their grief stories. However, believe it or not, I witness it more in everyday life as you have said. We simply need to be present for what the other person is saying. The reality is, I think the one up stories come from the fact that people do not feel heard from others.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I love this - it's so true! Isn't it weird why we always do that? People always tend to compare themselves to others and are always far worse off than the other person.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I love this post, and it's absolutely true. This is especially hard when you have people around you constantly doing this all the time.Like at work. I work in a medical field and currently we have a few staff members that keep comparing and competing and it just brings the rest of us down.

    Maya

    www.healthymominabusyworld.com

    ReplyDelete
  12. Love love love. This is probably my favorite blog post of yours. I think, especially as women, we tend to mirror conversation in effort to relate to the other person. I think we want to share in the suffering to let people know they are not alone. But, whenever I'm in pain and someone says, "Oh yeah. . .well in 3rd world countries they. . . " it devalues my feelings. Listening is key!!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Yes! I so agree with this. I never really do understand the motivation behind sharing things like this. Another similar (but not quite the same) thing is when older people tell younger people to "just wait" until they actually experience "real problems." When a 17 year old is experiencing a typical 17 year olds problems and trials it's not fair to expect them to understand the heartache of job loss, divorce, debt, and more. For each perosn--the season their in is where they are experiencing the things that prepare them for the next season. It doesn't make sense to me to shame people for having sadness just because you feel you've experienced worse. Sadness or struggle is sadness or struggle--regardless of how it relates on a global scale. Sometimes perspective is good, but I think we all need to remember that it's okay to have those feelings.

    ReplyDelete
  14. My family has a terrible habit of one-upping. It always drove me crazy. Just because someone has it worse doesn't mean that your feelings and frustrations are insignificant. Sometimes people just need to let those feelings out and we shouldn't try to tell them why their feelings are wrong. We should validate that they feel that way and let them move on in their own time.

    ReplyDelete
  15. "But I do not believe that topping one person's story of tough times with your own story is the way to give them a proper perspective."

    Powerful words. I'm training as a counselor and honestly, learning that one of the worst things you can do is try to validate someone's pain through your own. "It's okay to feel this way, because I went through the same thing." Um, no you didn't!

    Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Great reminder. Too often we forget to really listen...and just listen without comments or advice.

    ReplyDelete
  17. What a great point! I often get caught in that trap, myself! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  18. I've never understood the need to one-up someone else's pain. I guess I've learned that everyone's pain is valid, and no one's pain is more significant than another's. We all have our battles to fight.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I couldn't agree more! I don't understand why our subconscious always has to one up another person's struggles. I am definitely guilty of this at times too

    ReplyDelete
  20. I think the only time it's really appropriate to share your boo-hoo story in response to theirs is if you think it will help them feel less alone. The most helpful thing to me after my miscarriages was being able to talk to someone else who'd also lost a baby: there's something about crying together over our shared experience that helped somehow.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Truth! This is a frustrating cycle that I see frequently.

    ReplyDelete
  22. So true, I don't know why "we" do this either. I think it comes from a good place, trying to perhaps relate and show empathy, but it takes a bad turn somewhere in there. I've been through some sh**, but I'm trying to work hard to truly listen and show compassion when others are airing their grievances. Honestly sometimes, in comparison in my head I am saying "Why are you complaining about this?", but it still their pain and not to be mitigated.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Guilty. Sometimes I catch myself and I'm ashamed. Sometimes, my husband catches me and says "It's not a competition!" And, I'm sure sometimes it slips through. But you're right. It needs to stop. It's not helping anybody.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Great advice. It is true that often we listen with our own ears, always relating to ourselves. It is a human trait. Being able to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and truly "hear" is a gift and something we should strive for more often.

    bisous
    Suzanne

    ReplyDelete
  25. Yes! It drives me crazy when people try to one-up each other in their misery! (And it drives me crazy when I realize that I'm doing it!) Thanks for speaking out about this!

    ReplyDelete
  26. This is such a powerful message. I find myself doing this too, totally inadvertantly. I'm not really trying to one-up people, but rather trying to find a story/situation that's comparable to show that I understand and get it, but I definitely see/know how annoying and hurtful that can be. I've definitely started just listening more, agreeing and showing support, as opposed to talking and feeling the need to share my own story. Excellent post!!

    ReplyDelete
  27. This is so easy to do, so thanks for the reminder! We all need to be more sympathetic and compassionate with others. Things can be difficult and stessful even if it doesn't seem like it to someone who might be experiencing something "worse."

    ReplyDelete